(Photo credit: FDR National Historic Site, courtesy loonyhiker, Flickr Creative Commons)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of America’s greatest presidents, and also one of the most controversial. I’d known that for a long time. What I hadn’t known for quite so long was the extent to which that controversy extended into the bedroom. I was reminded about that quite forcefully when I visited the president’s family home at Hyde Park, New York.
I’ve long found Roosevelt to be one of America’s most fascinating chief executives. At school he was the first U.S. president from history whose name I learned, largely because of his association with Churchill in the Allied effort in World War II. No other former president’s memory loomed larger in postwar Britain—not Washington or Jefferson, not Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. FDR even has a statue in London. Two, in fact: the best-known one is in Grosvenor Square, while another life-size memorial in Mayfair has him seated on a park bench chatting with Churchill. Other presidents seem to have been trying to catch up in recent years: Washington, Eisenhower, Lincoln, JFK and Reagan all now have statues in central London. But Roosevelt retains his prime spot in my reckoning. His efforts to aid Britain in its time of greatest need earned him the respect and gratitude of the whole country.
Britain’s and the world’s admiration of Roosevelt only flowered in the last years of his life, however, when the 32nd president took the lead in defeating the forces of fascism (an effort that speeded his own demise). But by December 1941, when America entered the Second World War, the New Yorker had already been on this earth for almost 60 years, thirty of them as a politician and nine of them as president. If we want to understand more about this man and his strange but epic life, we have to travel to the place he called his home: Hyde Park. Today the National Park Service runs that site—now known as the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. Nearby lies his wife Eleanor’s Val-Kill cottage, also known as the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site. Also at the location is the FDR Presidential Library, run by the National Archives and Records Administration. (I’m going to save discussion of that place for another blog post.)
This is a beautiful area, rural and bucolic even though it’s only about 90 minutes travel time from Manhattan. It’s easily accessible from New York City, even with public transportation (the park service runs a shuttle bus from the Metro North station in nearby Poughkeepsie). Visitors from farther afield often stay in quaint local towns such as Rhinebeck or Red Hook. That’s what I did at the time of my visit.
The whole area reeks of early American history. The Hudson River Valley was originally settled by the Dutch in the early 1600s, and the Dutch left their mark on the region. It’s fitting that this area should have become home to the Roosevelts, themselves partly descended from some of the earliest Dutch settlers in America.
The Roosevelt home sits on what is known as the Springwood estate, which was originally purchased by Franklin’s father in the 1860s. Franklin made major improvements to the house and lands in the early 1900s, and by 1915 the house had assumed its current shape. Franklin actually donated the house and estate to the American people before his death. The only condition was that his surviving family members would be allowed to continue to use the property for the remainder of their lives. Since the 1940s the estate has been a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service.
The Roosevelt house itself is set on a picturesque spot overlooking the Hudson River. When I toured the home, the section that most people seemed to be interested in was the sleeping quarters upstairs. This is where King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had stayed while visiting the Roosevelts in June 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. Interest in the World War II-era British monarch was high at the time: “The King’s Speech,” an Oscar-winning film about King George’s efforts to overcome a debilitating speech impediment on the eve of war, had recently opened in the theaters. The royal couple’s bedroom was on display (separate beds of course), as was the bedroom used by Winston Churchill. And of course there were Franklin’s and Eleanor’s sleeping quarters: Not only separate beds this time but separate rooms. This brought the tour into the awkward matter of the Roosevelts’ strained relationship and Franklin’s alleged affairs, the most famous being that with his wife’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. After that affair was uncovered Eleanor supposedly never slept with Franklin again and maintained a separate bedroom at Hyde Park.
At this point one small group of women began delving further into salacious territory, pressing the park ranger on the matter of whether and to what extent Eleanor had been involved in a lesbian relationship with an AP reporter by the name of Lorena Hickok. This has been a matter of scholarly controversy for some years; while Eleanor’s letters to Hickok has raised strong suspicions of an affair, no final consensus has emerged over whether their very close friendship ever became sexual. However, for the women interested in this matter on our tour group, their questioning suggested that they had no doubt about the reality of the affair. The ranger, who was female, dealt with these questions tactfully but firmly, reciting relevant points of scholarly research and noting that the matter continued to be open to debate. “But what do you think happened?” the group’s members asked repeatedly, bringing more “facts” to bear to support their case. The park ranger hinted at her position—no doubt backed up by her own extensive research—that she remained skeptical over the question of the lesbian relationship. That didn’t satisfy the visitors, whose questions were starting to sound more like an interrogation. Eventually the ranger succeeded in moving the tour onto other matters—quite tactfully as it happened—but it was a struggle. I felt bad for the ranger. They must get these sorts of questions a lot. I also felt bad on the behalf of the rest of the tour group—more than a dozen of us—who were anxious to move on.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against visitors pressing historic site interpreters—park service or otherwise—for clarity and accuracy. Controversies such as this provide interesting material for discussion. But diminishing returns soon set in, and tour group members can cross the line from firm questioning to badgering. I think that’s what happened in this case. These women were so intent on pressing their questions that they temporarily hijacked the tour from the rest of us. When that happens time is wasted, learning is lost, and the rest of the tour group starts quietly checking watches and looking for the exit.
Beyond the house lies a rose garden, where both Franklin and Eleanor are buried. Franklin was laid to rest there after his death on April 12, 1945. Eleanor, however, lived on for many years before passing away in November 1962. In that time she continued to chart her own course, extending her already-impressive activism further into areas of civil rights, the United Nations and Democratic politics. She even became a newspaper columnist. In this way Eleanor Roosevelt solidified her reputation as one of the most respected and admired first ladies in presidential history.
Eleanor’s life is also memorialized just a couple of miles away at Hyde Park, at a cottage called Val-Kill that became both a personal retreat and a base for her public activities, both during Franklin’s presidency and after. This site actually contains two cottages: Val-Kill and the adjacent Stone Cottage, which became the home of two of Eleanor’s closest friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.
The day I visited was actually the anniversary of her death in 1962, and that added a somber note to the tour there. The interior was displayed pretty much exactly as it had looked at the time of Eleanor’s death, so walking through it is like stepping back in time to the early 1960s. The tour was quite extensive, and I realized that the term “cottage” doesn’t quite communicate the scale of the place. The building was in fact originally a small factory that Franklin had converted into a residence for his wife. The park service notes that this cottage expanded “to contain two living rooms, a dining room, seven bedrooms, a dormitory for young guests, two large porches downstairs, and a sleeping porch upstairs, as well as a small caretakers’ apartment.” Add to that a swimming pool, a picnic ground, and a stable and it’s quite a bit of real estate.
Eleanor purchased Val-Kill under her own name following Franklin’s death, and it was in this period that she really came into her own, using this space for her activities on the national and international stages. She hosted dignitaries as varied as Jawaharlal Nehru and Winston Churchill. Democratic presidential candidates would come calling, seeking her blessing and support. Our tour guide made great play out of John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1960, showing us the spot where they would likely have met and talked. By that point Eleanor was clearly a powerful elder stateswoman in her own right.
Val-Kill reminds us that although Hyde Park is primarily devoted to the memory of Franklin Roosevelt, it’s hard to overstate the importance of Eleanor’s own life. She did such an effective job of carving out a role for herself in the nation’s story that she has deservedly become an icon for women’s rights as well as social justice.
The main visitor center for the Roosevelt homes is also worth a mention. It’s a pleasant, modern (opened in 2003) building that includes the usual interpretive film, a shop (the “New Deal Store”), and a ticket desk where tours can be booked for the Roosevelt home as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage and the nearby Vanderbilt House (another park service unit that has nothing to do with the Roosevelts but is so close that it’s folded into the same administrative unit). The entrance lobby features a large pictorial map mosaic of all the local Roosevelt-related properties in the area. It’s picturesque and you can use it to orient yourself even before you get hold of a park map.
The building also functions as an education center—the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center, to give it its full name. The center is a partnership between the park service and the adjacent FDR Presidential Library. More and more these days, park service visitor centers are extending their mission by partnering with other public and private bodies. In this case the joint effort provides new classroom and conference space as part of the center’s mission to expand knowledge and appreciation of FDR’s legacy.
Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, Val-Kill Cottage, New York. Available at http://www.cr.nps.gov/Nr/travel/presidents/eleanor_roosevelt_valkill.html
Doris Kearns Goodwin (1994). No Ordinary Time. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Val-Kill in Historic Hyde Park. National Trust for Historic Preservation. Available at http://www.preservationnation.org/travel-and-sites/sites/eastern-region/val-kill.html#.UoDm0JSgmNw